08/28/2014 12:48 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

Ferguson and Cheap Historical Comparisons


If you spend an inordinate time, like I do, on Facebook, you have most likely seen images from Ferguson, Missouri, juxtaposed with iconic photos from the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

At first glance, the 21st-century color photos of military tactics applied by Ferguson police next to the the 20th-century black-and-white photos from Oxford, Mississippi, Selma, and Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s bear some similarity.

The photographs, void of context, make for a powerful comparison to suggest not much has changed.

But much has changed. To offer the tragic events in Ferguson as a linear comparison to the demonstrations of the 1960s is a cheap use of history that devalues both efforts.

During the Birmingham campaign in 1963, civil right protesters had the dubious distinction of simultaneously taking on the city of Birmingham and ostensibly the state of Alabama; they received tacit support from the Kennedy administration, but hostility from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Bloggers, social media, and even journalist have sought this low-budget shortcut to define this explosive news story in Ferguson.

But in our microwave culture where information masquerades as fact and being first supersedes accuracy, comparisons just below the surface demonstrating little knowledge of the historical event, or the present day moment, should be expected.

This unimaginative methodology takes the 20th century's greatest public demonstration of the unwavering belief in American democracy, contrasting it with an ongoing event where there remain far more questions than answers.

It is understandable that some would seek to make the comparison -- a coalition of largely black protestors non-violently taking on the Ferguson Police Department captured on camera while not exactly at its finest moment conjures the image of Bull Connor with his police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham.

As civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis recently observed, "Ferguson, Missouri, is part of the United States of America. People have a right to protest, they have a right to dissent, they have a right to march in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, and the press has a right to cover it."

But protests alone does not a civil rights movement make.

One month ago, few without ties to the "Show-me" state could have successfully located Ferguson on the map. After Michael Brown's tragic death, it became the new ground zero reflecting America's original sin of race that is receiving global attention.

The hostilities in Ferguson that were the lead news story for nearly two weeks will most likely quell until more facts are made clear.

But the death of Brown is comingled with a menagerie of additional interests. From those who wish to highlight systemic racism to political opportunist to looters to overzealous police tactics are placed in a caldron that is served to erroneously define what occurred in Ferguson.

The expedient historical analogy alleviates any pressure to understand the moment at hand. One is free to return to the caldron and pull out the example that support one's preconceived notion.

This frees us to define Ferguson by the example that works for us be it the protestors, looters, or police without the burden of curiosity that makes this particular moment unique.

In doing so, we can only acknowledge the humanity of the position we support. If we can make a civil rights analogy, including the violent urban unrest, our discomfort is not threatened.

There were indeed urban riots in the 1960s but those uprisings had no relation to a movement that pledged its sacred honor on the Constitution in moving the nation closer to its promise of equal protection under the law.

The movement of the '60s was hardly a bastion of perfection. Instead, it was roughly eight years of trial and error. But it rendered the country an invaluable service by making it better.

It is much too soon to define Ferguson, let alone compare it. For it has been proven the ability to see through the lens of hindsight is always superior to the present moment perspective.